There was time when there was an loud and thunderous roar that exploded inside a Dallas hockey arena. The Dallas Stars were fighting in the NHL playoffs and were facing a team that not many thought they could beat. It had been a playoff season already filled with theatrics and overtime, but this game was particularly long. A win would send the Stars into the next round and even closer to the Stanley Cup, but more importantly it would knock off a bitter rival.
Hockey fever seemed to sweep across the area as fans came out of the woodwork to support the Stars in the late spring. The home crowd was as loud as it had ever been as the fans were swept into a frenzy by great goaltending, big hits and nerve-wracking hockey. When the winning goal was scored in the fourth overtime, the cameras filming the event for television were shaking as every fan in the arena went nuts.
It's amazing how April of 2008 feels so long ago.
A little over 18 months after Brenden Morrow's magical overtime goal against the San Jose Sharks propelled the Stars into the Conference Finals against Detroit, things have changed dramatically for both the team and it's fans.
When the Stars franchise moved to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993, there were reservations about whether an NHL team could work in a region dominated by football. At the time the Dallas Cowboys were the biggest story in sports, in the midst of a dynasty that won three championships in four years. The Stars were this team that played a primitive sport that was fast, violent and exciting, yet completely unknown to the majority of sports fans in the area. The hope that hockey would catch on quickly was hampered by the lockout in 1994, yet the Stars almost immediately found a formula that drew fans in and kept them loyal.
After a sluggish 1995-96 season where the Stars failed to make the playoffs, the team almost immediately became a perennial contender in the Western Conference. More importantly, General Manager Bob Gainey brought a blue collar attitude to the team that instantly became recognizable to fans; the Stars were a team that wasn't flashy but they won with hard work, grit and determination. The franchise worked tirelessly to promote the sport and the team in the area, sponsoring hockey tournaments and opening up ice rinks throughout the Metroplex. And as popularity in the sport grew, so did the Stars' position as one of the elite teams in the NHL.
This was a team that was determined to build a champion, signing the top goaltender and the top scorer in free agency in consecutive seasons. The fans were insanely loyal to the players and the sport was accessible to anyone. More importantly, the games became an event that anyone could attend and everybody wanted to. When the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, it was the culmination of just a few years work but showed just how far they had come. The Stars were the toast of the town and everyone was clamoring to find room on the bandwagon.
Yet that level of popularity was fleeting, especially in a town obsessed with winning.
The Stars were one of the most successful teams in the NHL for over a decade, yet advanced past the conference semifinals just once after 2000. Fans became frustrated with a team that showed so much promise, talent and potential yet floundered in the postseason. And then the formula that was perfected to build a champion starting in 1997 was forgotten, and the effects are still being felt today.
Tom Hicks saw his team start to flounder in 2002, and hired Doug Armstrong to replace Gainey as G.M. while also firing long time coach Ken Hitchcock, whom many thought had lost his voice among the players, and to hire a coach that was supposed to take the team in a new direction. While some lauded the move as a gutsy call that needed to be made, it was Armstrong's trade of fan favorites Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner that truly started the spiral into new and unfamiliar territory.
While Gainey had in fact built his team through big free agency acquisitions and smart trades, Armstrong was unable to revive the same magic as before. The Stars spent openly in free agency on big-name veterans, yet none ever lived up to the size of their contracts. The Stars teams were highly competitive and successful in the regular season but lacked an overall cohesion and chemistry that was needed to get through a long playoff run.
Sensing that another big change was needed after a slow start, Hicks fired Armstrong in favor a dual General Manager system consisting of Les Jackson and Brett Hull in the fall of 2007. That season the Stars revived that hard working attitude that had made them successful for so long, culminating that magical playoff run of 2008. Yet the euphoria failed to last as injuries took their toll and the Stars failed to make the playoffs for just the third time since coming to Dallas.
This season, so much has changed. A new General Manager with a new direction for his team. A new coach with a new system. And a team that struggles with consistency each and every night. For a team that has for so long lived at the top of the standings and for so long has operated at a high level of competition and success, seeing the Stars flounder two seasons in a row is something fans have never had to endure before.
Yet Dallas Stars fans are unlike other sports fans in the area. They are some of the most loyal and knowledgeable hockey fans in North America, and there is not doubt that they will be there to support their team even when things are at their worst. Yet the Dallas Stars have never had to deal with the possibility of losing the fringe fan base, those that are not fanatics yet enjoy a good hockey game. And it's those fans that are failing to show up game after game.
The Dallas Stars are mired in a financial swamp. Years of operating at a high level of spending, despite having high levels of revenue have left the team with seemingly nothing left in the reserve tanks. The seasons of free agency spending and of operating as tightly against the salary cap as possible, while running a state of the art arena had forced ticket prices to rise to levels that box out the casual fan. And it's not just ticket prices that were affected; the Stars have cut back on funding for the events that made this team so popular just a decade ago.
Much has been made about Tom Hicks' financial woes between his three sports franchises, yet the team maintains that the Dallas Stars operate completely independently. Yet the team is now locked in a downward spiral that is threatening to alienate more fans than ever.
Attendance at home games this season is at an all time low, with just 16,217 attending last night's game against the Ducks. The Stars have worked to adjust ticket prices to make going to the games much easier on fans as well as generating more revenue for theam, as they introduced a 'dynamic pricing' system this season for all home games. Currently, premium terrace tickets to a Saturday night home game against Detroit will cost you $66. The same ticket just two nights later will cost you $34.
In theory the system should work great, and this season the Dallas Stars have one of the lowest average ticket prices in the NHL, as well as having a very low Fan Cost Index. Yet the system is not working as well as hoped, as the team has announced several more promotions during the season to cut prices in an effort to put more fans in the seats. Still not good enough. The lowered budget has crippled the Stars ability to continue to build a fanbase and it is in jeopardy of losing those fans they fought so hard to get.
What makes all of this all the more ridiculous is the inability of the Dallas Stars fan to watch the games at home. Disputes between FSN and local satellite and cable companies has left many Stars fans blacked out at home and it's becoming almost an everyday occurrence. Between FSN moving Stars games to their "plus" channel or DISH flat out refusing to air 20 games this season, a fanbase that is already stretched as thin as it ever has been before is now forced to listen to radio broadcasts, if they even decide to go that far.
What is needed is for the Stars to win, yet this is a team that is in desperate need of an infusion of outside talent. The Stars are currently just under $10 million below the salary cap, yet Joe Nieuwendyk is forced to abide by a in-house budget. The Stars did not have the ability to sign a big-name free agent over the summer, nor does it appear they have the finances to make a big trade this season either.
The Dallas Stars are going to be forced to ride with the team they have, and there's a chance it won't be good enough. The defense is too shaky and despite having good depth at forward, the Stars are in need of a skilled right-handed shot. The quick answer to all this is just for the Stars to win, and the fans will return. Yet the team is saddled by a budget and is fighting inconsistency.
In the meantime, the fan of the Dallas Stars is left to reside in a place they have never been before. They have a team that has struggled for over a year now, without a sign that things will improve dramatically anytime soon. They are fans of a team that looks close to unable to keep the talented players they currently have, as well as unable make the team more competitive through acquisitions. They find themselves forced to pay premium ticket prices for weekend games, yet the arena still has plenty of empty seats on the nights when tickets are cheap. Most discouragingly, the fans find they have rarely had much to cheer for while watching their team at home.
The Dallas Stars are not in danger. They will always have a loyal and dedicated fanbase. And the Stars have always worked hard to treat their fans right.
Yet right now, this team and it's fans are someplace they've never been before and it doesn't look like there's a way out anytime soon.